Women Climbers | Moving mountains
Debt, disability and societal pressures were but some of the hurdles Indian women faced in 2013 on their quest to conquer Everest
One change in Tusi Das’ physical appearance after her ascent of Mt Everest earlier this year is the presence of a smear of vermillion in the parting of her hair. In July, she married Delhi-based Anit Sah, owner of a mountaineering and adventure sports company called Altitudes Expeditions.
For a long time, they weren’t really in love, Das says. Her decision to marry Sah was based primarily on the criterion that he would be the kind of man who would encourage her to continue mountaineering, and would not just want her to be confined to the kitchen or her job. “I’ve seen in my own family, in the case of my sisters, how marriage can end their sporting ambitions. I didn’t want that to happen to me,” says Das, who now spends time between Delhi and Kolkata.
I met 29-year-old Das at the Dum Dum Park bazaar in Kolkata, a busy middle-class market, where she helps her mother run their egg-retailing business. She sat on a cemented platform in her roofless and wall-less stall. On a good day she sells about 400 eggs and takes home a profit of around Rs.200.
It has been four months since her ascent of the highest mountain in the world, and her customers still come by to congratulate her on her feat. Much as Das likes the adulation, she has other worries weighing on her mind: she still has to repay Rs.2 lakh of the loan she took from relatives to finance her Everest expedition.
Das is a mountaineer with years of training and climbing experience—Everest isn’t the most challenging peak she has climbed. She has ascended other mountains that she considers far tougher—like the Thalay Sagar peak in the Garhwal Himalayas (22,651ft), which with its steep gradients and life-threatening dangers demanded all her mountaineering knowledge and experience, and tested her physical and mental resolve to the utmost.
Yet, it is her Everest conquest that Das is best known for. Das, who climbed Everest with teammate Chanda Gayen and Sherpa guides, is one of 10 Indian civilian women to have successfully climbed the peak in 2013. This is the highest number of Indian civilian women to have ascended Everest over a single summer climbing season.
Yet, as she sits in her egg-stall in Dum Dum bazaar, brooding over her debts, Das finds herself questioning the financial wisdom of undertaking her Everest expedition at an expense of Rs.20 lakh.
That took nothing away from how inspiring some of these triumphs were. Arunima Sinha, 26, who in 2013 became the first female amputee to climb the Everest, “wanted to yell out” her thanks to all those who had ridiculed “the ambitions of a disabled girl from a middle-class family in a district of Uttar Pradesh”. Their scorn made her push harder, says Sinha.
In April 2011, the national-level volleyball and football player was travelling in a train, when she was thrown out of her compartment by chain snatchers. As she lay bleeding on the tracks, a train passing on the adjacent track crushed her left leg and badly damaged her right leg. She now walks with an artificial left leg and the support of two rods running through her right leg.
Her plight was accompanied not just by physical pain but also ignominy. Railway Police Force (RPF) officials, eager to wash their hands of the responsibility for a crime occurring on their beat, alleged that she was travelling ticketless and had jumped out of the train when accosted by a ticket examiner. Her family countered with her ticket as well as CCTV footage of her standing in the ticket queue. The RPF officials then alleged that Sinha had jumped out of the train because she was suicidal. The case went to the Allahabad high court, which ruled in favour of Sinha and gave her a clean chit. Yet her victory was pyrrhic, for her attackers were never found
As she lay in her hospital bed with her leg amputated, Sinha decided she had to prove a point—not just to those who had wronged her and to those who had pitied her, but also to herself. She took aim at what then looked like an impossible feat of physical exertion—scaling the Everest. “I didn’t want to be seen as a bechari (helpless) girl without a leg,” she says.
Pal remembers the day former prime minister Indira Gandhi told her at a felicitation party that she wanted to see “100 such Bachendris”. “It has been a male-dominated sport and I’ve seen many frustrated men create obstacles. With guided expeditions and Sherpa support, climbing the Everest has become easier, but in India where women are worshipped as goddesses in temples but where their every freedom and movement is curtailed, the symbolism of a woman climbing Everest is immense,” says Pal.
But Sinha’s amputated leg presented a tougher challenge than anything Pal had faced in her career as a trainer. This woman could not walk—how would she confront a mountain that had humbled and vanquished even those who had climbed mountains all their lives?
Slowly, steadily Sinha made progress. She learnt to stand up. Slowly, agonizingly, she took baby steps. She would stumble, and sometimes stop in the midst of bolts of pain. As she egged herself on day after painful day, she started to walk. As days rolled into months, she slowly built up her body strength. She learnt the skills she would require to survive the snowstorms and steep slopes and scarce oxygen.
It took 18 gruelling months of staring at impossibility. But at the end of this, Sinha was fit, prepared and raring to go. She set out toward the slopes of Everest. She made it up the peak without much difficulty. But on her way down, at 25,000ft, blood began seeping from the stump of her amputated left foot, drenching her trousers. She saw a red trail behind her on the pristine whiteness of the Everest slope.
The pain was excruciating, but she forced herself to carry on without seeking help. A mountain is conquered not when it is summited, but only when it is descended safely from—and she did not want to quit, even if it meant endangering her life and limbs.
“I had to prove that neither women nor the disabled should be considered weak. Everything is what one thinks of oneself,” says Sinha, who is now planning to start a sports academy with the Rs.25 lakh award given to her by the Uttar Pradesh government for her achievement.
Since her Everest ascent, Agarwal has climbed the highest mountains on the five continents, along with those in Australia and Antarctica, together known as the Seven Summits. She refers to herself as a housewife who takes care of her in-laws, husband and two daughters. She also takes time out to lead women on treks, be it at the Dalma Hill near her hometown Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, or off Manali in Himachal Pradesh, where she occasionally travels to. Many of her clients, women on their first-time treks, are often apprehensive about whether they can handle a physically strenuous activity like mountaineering, but Agarwal leads by example. Her extensive experience, boundless energy and her disdain for her age inspire her clients. “An achievement is worthless if nobody is motivated by it,” she says.
Devi was part of the 1st North East Top of the World Mt Everest Expedition, conceptualized by the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association. The team also included 34-year-old Anshu Jamsenpa, a mother of two from Arunachal Pradesh who was climbing Everest for the third time, and 31-year-old Wansuk Myrthong, the first woman from Meghalaya to do so.
Myrthong recalls the time when she was the only woman in a 60-member team at an Indo-Tibetan Border Police mountaineering training institute at Auli, Uttarakhand. She felt out of place but took it as a challenge and finished second in her class at the institute.
Wing Commander Amit Chowdhury, honorary secretary of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, believes that the optimism about Indian women’s achievements is unwarranted. While he admits to the increasing interest of women in mountaineering, he says, climbing Everest has become a “touristy” affair. “From fixing ropes, setting up camp, carrying equipment, finding route to having a tea whenever you want, everything is done by the Sherpas. Nobody wants to attempt other peaks like the Thalay Sagar. People, including women, are merely walking up the Everest, but I don’t call them mountaineers. I don’t even care if hundreds climb Everest,” says Chowdhury.
Yet, in spite of the facilities that have eased the hardships of climbing Everest, the peak is anything but easy.
The ascent itself still involves labouring up impossibly steep slopes, guarding against frostbite and risking death for hours together. Everest still remains a symbol of man’s quest to master nature.
For Indian women, it has been much harder, for they have had to battle not only the furies of nature that the mountain flings at them, but also blockades that societal pressures and expectations have thrown in their path.
Celebrating 60 years of the Everest’s first successful ascent.
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